In retrospect, the genuinely great moments of Sex and the City were very few and far between. At its core, the series provided an electrifying vision of female friendship and, on the rare occasions when it genuinely embraced that project, it stood in a league of its own. We saw it in the last minute of the series finale, when Carrie returned from Paris, and greeted Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, as Candi Staton’s “You Got The Love” carried us through to the final credits. We saw it in the episode when the four women headed to Atlantic City for a weekend, failed at both the casino tables and the romantic tables, and looked after each other on the bus ride back. And we saw it in the spectacular episode where Carrie, tired of being shamed for being single, demanded a married friend sign up to a singles gift registry.
Yet the series also became exhausting in the gymnastic and contorted lengths it went to in order to explain why these four strong women would pursue such a narrow, tedious and toxic array of men. Sometimes they blamed themselves, sometimes they blamed each other, and sometimes they blamed women generally, but they never really held the men accountable, or expanded beyond the insular dating pool they were all perpetually stuck in. As they continuously policed each other, and other women, to make excuses for the men they found attractive, the series became a kind of study in what might be called heteronormative realism – the concession that heteronormativity might be dysfunctional, paired with an insistence that it was still the only way, even or especially given the gay audience implied in it address.
This became particularly pronounced in the final season. For a show that had once celebrated single women, and female friendship, suddenly everything was all about single-shaming. Carrie ended up with Big, the ultimate signifier of toxic male emptiness, while Charlotte ended up with Harry Goldenblatt, a pig who made her convert to Judaism, despite not being orthodox himself, and then made her feel hysterical for questioning why he wouldn’t come to the table for their first kosher dinner together. Try as the series might to prevent Harry as a provocative counterpoint to the prim and proper Charlotte’s normal svelte investment banker, he just clarified that her baseline for attraction was – and always had been – money.
Even more disappointing was Miranda’s relationship with Steve. Here was a man who had moralised away when Miranda expressed hesitation about having children, and then jumped the shark as soon as they did have a baby together. He wasn’t even able to look after their child for a single night, after she’d looked after him for two weeks, so she could spend a weekend away. Worse still, Miranda met the best romantic prospect of the entire series in the final season – Robert Leeds, a sports phyisican, who was attractive, sexually confident, financially independent, interesting, caring, thoughtful and romantic. Unfortunately, for the show, he was also black, meaning he had to be disposed of in the most peremptory manner to make way for Steve, the living embodiment of petulant, whining, beta-male entitlement.
Only Samantha came away looking good at the end of the series – not just because her breast cancer subplot was the most affecting and interesting, but because her relationship with star and model Smith Jerrod was the best in the entire series. What started as a purely sexual relationship, and then a professional relationship (Samantha became Smith’s PR adviser, and made him a star) turned into an exemplar in healthy heterosexuality. They were faithful to each other only because they left their relationship open, and they always talked through their issues. Smith went to therapy when things got tough, stuck by Samantha during her cancer, and never shamed, questioned or jettisoned her when she temporarily lost her libido.
Apart from Samantha, however, the series ended as an indictment of white feminism, or third-wave feminism, as the beginning of the 2000s, so you’d think that the film might have tried to redress that disappointment. Instead, Sex and the City – the movie – doubles down on everything that made the final season toxic, but without even the pacing and peppiness that made that last instalment (just) watchable. As a result, it stands as the absolute nadir of the Sex and the City universe to date. It also constitutes the last part of the grand narrative of the series, given that the sequel film dispenses with story for pure camp and carnivalesque.
In effect, Sex and the City goes for a comedy of remarriage, which means that it starts with a marriage – between Carrie and Big. This already seems a bit redundant, since they appeared to be engaged at the end of the final episode. Nevertheless, we have to go through all the tedious details of their engagement here, which are about as basic as you might imagine. Big woos her using quotes from Love Letters of Great Men, Carrie decides that they should get married in the New York Public Library, and declares that she doesn’t even want to wear a designer dress. No sooner than she does so, however, than Vogue announces that it wants to profile the wedding – cut to a montage of Carrie trying on every designer dress in existence.
The catch is that Big leaves her at the altar, which is presented here as a massive dramatic moment, but is really indistinguishable from all the times this most repetitive of couples broke up in the series. This takes us into the sustained second act, which starts with Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte accompanying Carrie on what was meant to be her honeymoon in Mexico. A brief depressive funk settles over the film, and recalls the emo tones of the truncated fifth season, which saw Carrie shift to short hair to mourn her relationship with Aidan. Yet this depression quickly turns bitter and petulant, and shifts us into some of the most insane single-shaming and body-shaming of the entire franchise, especially once Miranda breaks up with Steve, after learning he had a one-night stand with another woman.
In a sense, Miranda and Steve’s story is the real kernel – and trauma – of Sex and the City. No romantic trajectory captured the series’ capitulation to heteronorms quite like Miranda and Steve. It almost felt as the series punished Miranda for her professional independence by consigning her to marry the most basic, irritating and petulant man in its entire universe. Having Steve cheat on Miranda feels like a concession to this contrivance, a return of everything the series and its fans had to repress about this most unlikeable of couples. Yet the repression recurs almost immediately, as the infidelity becomes a pretext for Steve to resume his homely shtick, and convince Miranda why, indeed, he is the man for her, in a tragedy of remarriage that reprises their romantic narrative in a remarkably depressing way.
With Samantha ensconced with Smith in Los Angeles, and Charlotte continually congratulating herself on her married life with Harry, most of the second act revolves around Carrie and Miranda as they try to come to terms with Big and Steve respectively. Yet their shared experience somehow reiterates the (supposedly) irreducible isolation of being single, culminating with them ringing each other to realise that they are both home, alone, on New Year’s Eve. Yes, Carrie does heroically walk fifty blocks downtown to show up at Miranda’s door, but what really resonates here is that they didn’t even think to contact each other earlier – as if singledom were a bubble that can’t be broken or traversed outside of fantasy.
As that might suggest, there’s no trace of real female friendship in this film – and none of the collective swagger of the series (a situation that Sex and the City 2 would try to restitute in the most flamboyant way). Instead, female friendship is subsumed into what it always really was the in the series, or at least in the later part of the series – a strategy for keeping toxic couples alive. The critical conversation between Carrie and Miranda, about trust, is immediately subsumed into a plea for Steve to be forgiven, while Charlotte’s pregnancy is immediately brokered to reunite Carrie and Big. Yet as hard as everyone works to get Miranda back with Steve, and Carrie back with Big, nobody bats an eyelid when Samantha breaks up with Smith, and so ends the only healthy relationship in the entire six seasons of the series.
On top of all that, Jennifer Hudson joins the cast as Louise, a PA who moves in with Carrie during the second act, in what feels like a pilot for a new sitcom. The series seems to be trying to envisage a new future for the franchise, or perhaps make amends for the way it disposed of Robert in the final season, but Louise is basically just Carrie’s emotional support secretary, since she doesn’t do much but reorganise her closet and drop pithy aphorisms about love, against a blaring backdrop of mid-00s rnb. As soon as Carrie has a shot of getting back together with Big, Louise is out of the picture, and doesn’t make an appearance in the sequel.
Even at its most toxic, the series had pacing, but there’s no peppiness to get us through the film – despite the fact that, at two and a half hours long, it effectively adds another half-season to the franchise. There are lots of opportunities for hijinks in such a long film, but King simply can’t direct to save his life – every scene is static, over-framed, hyper-conscious, like a particularly pretentious fashion shoot. The only real rhythm is seasonal, and follows the seasonal shift in fashion (the film pivots around New York Fashion Week) but it’s not enough, and ends up submerging the action in an autumn-winter murk that bogs it down even more.
It’s pretty dour, then, when Carrie does finally get together with Big – and the final note of Sex and the City is the utter tedium, banality and exhaustion of this relationship that supposedly sustained the series. There’s literally no drama, since this is precisely the same Big reconciliation that returned every couple of seasons in the series, just writ larger and more bombastically. In the denouement, Big leaves behind the ceremony of the wedding, but gets down on one knee for a traditional engagement, presenting Carrie with a diamond because “you need something to close the deal.” That’s Sex and the City in a nutshell – in the marriage wars of the late 2000s, it took the most regressive tack imaginable. You only have to look at Mamma Mia!, released the same year, and for a similar audience, to see how conservative this was, even for the time – a dead end that Sex and the City 2 would try in vain to escape.